by Ron Spence
So, who’s this kid – this Mario Bliznak?
I’d seen his name on the yearly prospects lists – since 2005 – but didn’t know anything about him
Bliznak wasn’t sent down to Manitoba last week – with the first batch of demotees – and coach V was giving him lots of ice time.
So, he figures into the Canucks’ future.
“I think back to the three camps I’d seen him at,” said Scott Arniel, “and he was just a body out there moving around. As a draft pick, I wondered what they saw in this guy.”
Bliznak, was a Slovakian-born seventh-round pick in 2005.
He attended training camp with the Moose in the fall of 2007 but returned for his final Western Hockey League season – as a 20-year-old.
His junior career with the Vancouver Giants isn’t marked with any fantastic stats, but coach Don Hay believed in him.
Bliznak received some great coaching from Hay and the experience of playing in the WHL final twice – and winning the Memorial Cup once – helped him to deal with the professional game.
“The WHL is different, but it was a long ride too — a couple of months,” said Bliznak. “Here every game is tough but hopefully [the previous experience] is going to help me.”
“Bliznak could become a serviceable third or fourth liner with a few more years of progress,” wrote Hockey’s Future. “His final major junior season showed that he does possess some offensive talent, although his career-high numbers were put up in his overage season.”
Moose GM Craig Heisinger, like Arniel, hadn’t seen a lot in the kid: “We always heard that his junior coach liked him a lot but nobody ever said what exactly they liked.”
“Probably he was on the bubble of whether he was going to be here or be in Victoria (of the ECHL),” said Arniel, “but right from the beginning of the year [2008-09] he played extremely well and did a lot of good things to earn a spot every night.”
It also helped that other Moose prospects – including Greg Rallo who’d been signed to be the team’s fourth-line centre – got hurt during training camp, and the Slovakian seized the opportunity.
“He’s a way smarter player than I gave him credit for,” Heisinger said. “He’s been the most pleasant surprise to date, no question.”
“I can understand now why (Vancouver Giants’ coach) Don Hay gave up two spots for him, an import and an overage,” Arniel said. “Usually they don’t do that in junior. He’s a very reliable player you can throw out in any situation, against any line.”
“The Aeros were making a last-ditch effort to tie Tuesday’s game,” wrote Tim Campbell. “One shift produced a few chances. Then Arniel tapped Bliznak to take the next faceoff.
“That’s good for confidence,” Bliznak said. “Obviously he’s trusting me. He put me on that faceoff six against five so that makes me more confident.”
The coach said the decision wasn’t tough.
“Pace-wise, he’s caught on here and got up to speed at the American League level,” Arniel said.
Bliznak had an good start to the 2008-09 campaign, but saw his game drop off during the stretch drive – and he spent time in the press box.
But, Bliznak was improving – during the course of the season – a fact not lost on the coaching staff or his teammates.
“He grew a lot and he developed over the year,” said Mike Keane. “It was a great year in a lot of different aspects. He did well at times, he sat out at times, he had to learn the game at times. As a first-year player, I don’t think you could get a better experience. You realize when you do well it’s great, but when things are going bad you have to work harder and maybe not press as much.”
Bliznak spent the start of round one – of the playoffs – in the press box, but then replaced enforcer Tommy Maxwell in Game 2, and saw his ice time further increased after an injury to Alexandre Bolduc two games after that.
Bliznak was promoted to the checking line with captain Mike Keane and Guillaume Desbiens and that unit completely neutralized the Marlies top line of Tim Stapleton, Jiri Tlusty and Bates Battaglia.
“Playing on the checking line was nothing new for me, but you just have to be good on every shift.”
courtesy of hockeydb.com
“He has poise in pressure situations,” Arniel said, “for a young guy. He does a good job of holding onto pucks and making his stick available at all times, either for outlets or for defending in coverage. He’s very responsible defensively. It doesn’t matter if he plays a small amount of minutes or large minutes, he doesn’t change his game too much. He’s at a very consistent level.”
“He’s been a guy who has been a surprise all season long for us,” Scott Arniel summarized.
And obviously a pleasant surprise during the ‘nucks pre-season.
This blog has used quotes from both the Winnipeg Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press.